Speaking of Religion: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas

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It is that time of year when many of us turn off the part of our brain that analyzes, critiques and interprets history. Instead of dealing with facts, data and ancient text we indulge in fanciful, pleasure inducing myths. In other words, it is the season of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas. Each one of these holidays celebrates a foundational historical event with stories that barely resembles reality, let alone what actually happened.

Let me offer just one or two factual errors for each of these three holidays to make my case. Fundamental to the Thanksgiving myth is the erroneous notion that the pilgrims came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom. In fact, the pilgrims first went to Leiden, Holland where they found an extremely tolerant and welcoming society. In fact, they were not seeking a religiously tolerance place to live. They left England (and Leiden) and came to the new world because they believed their own correct view was being repressed. They believed the Church of England was wrong and ungodly as was the very idea of religious tolerance! Despite what we teach about the Pilgrims today, the truth is they did not believe that all people have the right to practice the religion of their choosing.

Hanukkah is another holiday that is taught and celebrated largely divorced from historical facts. The most often cited detail of the Hanukkah story is how a cruse of oil that should have lasted only one day "miraculously" burned for eight days. In fact, the "miracle" was nothing less than vanquishing the powerful Seleucids. It is well documented through extant text that the story of the oil lasting eight days did not make its way into the historical records until many year later. Another myth taught about Hanukkah is that it was a war fought for religious freedom. In reality it was a mainly a war between the Maccabees, Jewish zealots and Hellenized Jews. In contemporary vernacular the Maccabean revolt was actually a civil war between the ultra orthodox Jews of the day and the secular or progressive Jews of the day.

Christianity did not celebrate the birth of Jesus until the fourth century when church officials decided to institute a holiday to celebrate his birth. Unfortunately the Christian Bible does not mention a date for his birth. It was Pope Julius I (died 12 April 352) who chose December 25 as Jesus' birthday. This date was probably chosen in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Another interesting "truth" is that the "traditional" Christmas celebration depicted in movies, TV shows and in our imagination is how the holiday has always been celebrated. In fact, the observance of Christmas has under gone many changes over the centuries, including a period from 1659 to 1681 when it was outlawed in Boston! The way Christmas is celebrated today was largely shaped by the preternatural influence of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol. When Dickens died in 1870, a young girl in London asked a question that demonstrated just how strongly Dickens' writings were associated with the holiday season and modern Christmas traditions. She asked, "Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die, too?"

What is one to make of the reality that the historical facts underpinning these three important holidays do not align with what is taught about them today? Does this undermine their value? I think not. Myths, metaphors, fables and story telling are essential vehicles for conveying complex truths (not necessarily historical facts), values, morals, and ideas. Each of these holidays evolved from its historical roots into an important vehicle for inspiring, teaching and guiding us forward. Let us all endeavor to embrace the best of what each of these holidays offers and be remind that humanity seems to possess a natural desire to want to evolve in ways that increase love, compassion and sharing in the world.

— Rabbi Howard A Cohen is the interim rabbi at Congregation Beth El. He was Beth El's first full time rabbi in over 20 years when he first moved to the area in 1994. After retiring from the pulpit in 2006 he returned to Beth El this summer to become its first part time rabbi in over 20 years.


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